Robert Ashton mulls over the motivations behind the growing enthusiasm for social enterprise.
I live close to the Lotus Cars factory in Norfolk. Some 1,200 people work there. Many more work locally for Lotus suppliers. Norfolk’s not the kind of place you expect to find a car factory, but having been here since 1966 it’s become rather important.
Part of Malaysian motor group Proton, it’s recently changed hands. There’s talk of Lotus being peeled off and sold to the Chinese. No surprise there I guess; Volvo and Rover are already Chinese-owned marques. But the Chinese economic boom has got me thinking. Is the growth of social enterprise in Europe simply a response to our economic situation? Or is it really a deeper, more fundamental shift towards putting people before profit?
It’s easy to forget that national debt, increasing poverty and economic stagnation are very much a European phenomenon. In China, India, Asia and Latin America economies are growing and so are personal incomes. People can afford more and that’s what they’re buying. Meat consumption is increasing, car sales are booming and Western luxury brands becoming increasingly popular.
But while China might love the quality of BMW and Mulberry, our standards of equality and human rights are less welcome. China in particular has a very different approach to personal freedom to us in the EU. To put it bluntly, profit seems more important there than people.
It was perhaps in some respects similar here when we were enjoying the post-war boom years. People had little time for tolerance or justice when they could suddenly afford the things they’d never thought would be within their grasp. As the 1960s progressed my own parents acquired their first car; their first TV and their first washing machine. It was a liberating time for some, but not for others. But they were by today’s standards also racist, homophobic and would never have bought a copy of the Big Issue had it been available.
I don’t think people are really that different wherever they live. The human psyche has been well researched and when stripped of environment and social context we’re all pretty much the same. Localism’s strength, in concept at least, is that it re-introduces us to the opportunity to become more tribal again. Get to know your neighbours and collectively you’ll soon aspire to see your street do better than others in your town.
Which brings me back to the question I’m wrestling with right now; are we really only interested in social enterprise because it’s an alternative to material fulfilment? Or have we somehow made a giant leap from our Pavlovian past? Would we abandon our concerns for the less fortunate in our society if economic prosperity returned? Tax revenues and philanthropy used to deal with the stuff most chose to ignore. It’s an interesting thought.